Thursday, March 19, 2020

Book Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

Digital Minimalism:  Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
Author:  Cal Newport
Publisher:  Portfolio (2019)
304 pages
Genre:  Non-fiction

"I am one of the few members of my generation to never have a social media account, and tend not to spend much time web surfing.  As a result, my phone plays a relatively minor role in my life - a fact that places me outside the mainstream experience this article ['I Used to Be a Human Being', Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine, September 2016] addressed."

It is because his phone plays a minor role in his life that Cal Newport has been able to write six books while holding a full-time job as an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, as well as finding time to be a husband and father.  What I love about this book is that it not only addresses the problem of spending too much time in the digital world, but it suggests a solution to the reader and gives specific steps that can be taken to gain control of your digital life.

The book is made up of two parts.  Part one is titled Foundations.  Part two, Practices.  In part one Newport identifies the problem with real life examples and research.  Then he introduces his suggestion for gaining control of your digital life - digital minimalism.  

Digital Minimalism
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

He contrasts this with the maximalist philosophy that most people employ by default - "a mind-set in which any potential for benefit is enough to start using a technology that catches your attention".  For example, maintaining a Facebook account because you might miss out on something or because all your friends or co-workers have an account rather than because it supports your values.  He goes on to give several real-life examples of people he interviewed who he would call digital minimalists and explains what their digital life looks like and why.

In the third chapter he presents a suggestion towards a process for rapidly becoming a digital minimalist.  He calls it a digital declutter and explains the guidelines and reasons for them, along with some feedback from people who tried this.  One of the things he stresses in order to be successful at this, is that you need to think about what you are going to replace the time you currently spend on your phone or computer with once you start the declutter.  Most people find the first week or two to be very uncomfortable and if you haven't already thought through what you are going to do with your time, chances are greater that you will return to your digital habits.

The second part of the book deals with Practices - habits, things to do going forward that will make your life better.  The first practice is solitude.  In this chapter Newport points out that many of us spend our entire day imputing information into our brains, whether it is scrolling through social media, clicking between blogs, listening to music or podcasts, watching Netflix or Youtube, reading books or even conversing with someone else.  Solitude is a state where your mind is left to wander and focus only on your own thoughts and experiences.  He gives many examples of people who lived by this practice and what they accomplished.  He discusses why solitude is valuable.  He looks into some research that suggests lack of solitude makes people anxious.  And finally, he offers suggestions for making this a practice in your life.

The final three practices are:  Don't Click "Like", Reclaim Leisure and Join the Attention Resistance.  In each chapter he illustrates the practice, gives real-life examples and suggests ways to incorporate these practices in your life and why you should.  

While I do not have any social media accounts, I do enjoy reading blogs.   Often, when reading blogs, I find that a much longer period of time has passed than I intended.  Many times, I will realize I opened up my computer for a specific purpose, but after following several rabbit trails, I can't remember what that purpose was.  

Digital Minimalism offers many good suggestions for taking better control of your digital life and reclaiming this time for better purposes.  It encourages you to take a good look at your life and determine what your values are and then make plans to live in a way that supports those things.  The digital world is here to stay and it has many benefits.  What many of us lack is a philosophy of technology use - "something that covers from the ground up which digital tools we allow into our life, for what reasons, and under what constraints".  As Newport says, "In the absence of this introspection, we'll be left struggling in a whirlwind of addictive and appealing cyber-trinkets, vainly hoping that the right mix of ad hoc hacks will save us."

If you are struggling with your digital life or are interested in what others may be struggling with, I highly recommend this book.


  1. I tried to get this book from our library but it was only available digitally, interestingly enough.

    So I bought it and I also highly recommend it!
    We should all have lots more time to read now.

    1. This would definitely be a book worth owning. I am certainly getting a lot of reading in.

      Hope you are staying well!